Kenya: President Kenyatta Mourns Renowned Scholar Professor Mbiti

8 October 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta has sent a message of condolence to the family of renowned Kenyan theology professor and philosopher Prof John Samuel Mbiti, who died at the age of 88 on Sunday while undergoing treatment in Bergdorf, Switzerland where he lived for decades.

In his message, the President described the late Mbiti as an accomplished Kenyan scholar and priest who was a great ambassador of the Kenyan nation abroad.

"We've lost a great Kenyan. A great man who went against all odds to become a successful scholar, writer and priest. He was a role model and an ambassador of the Kenyan brand abroad," the President wrote.

Prof Mbiti was a theologian and philosophy professor at the University of Bern and an Anglican Church clergy in Burgodorf at the time of his death.

He also taught religion and theology at Makerere University between 1964 and 1974 before becoming the director of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland.

GLOBAL ATTENTION

He caught global attention through his first seminal book African Religions and Philosophy, published in 1969, where he challenged Christian assumptions that traditional African religious ideas were "demonic and anti-Christian."

An ordained Anglican priest, who was born in Mulango area of Kitui County, Prof Mbiti was fluent in Greek -- one of the three original languages in which the Bible was first written.

He dedicated 12 of his sunset years, from 2003 to 2015, in translating the original Greek Bible version to Kamba, where he corrected more than 1,000 mistakes that were in earlier editions.

Opposition leaders Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, Governors Charity Ngilu (Kitui) and Kivutha Kibwana (Makueni) were among leaders who conveyed their condolences to the family of the academic giant.

"His book was an eye-opener and groundbreaking work. Condolences to his family. May his soul Rest In Peace," Mr Odinga said on Twitter.

Mr Musyoka said Prof Mbiti was a foremost scholar from Ukambani, who took his doctorate at the University of Cambridge in 1963 at the age of 32, and went on to become the director of World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland.

NOTORIOUSLY RELIGIOUS

"He held visiting professorships at universities across the world and published extensively on philosophy, theology and African oral traditions," said the Wiper party leader.

Interestingly, on the day Prof Mbiti died, US-based Kenyan lawyer, Prof Makau Mutua, had dedicated his Sunday Nation column to his theological work on how Africans were "notoriously religious".

"It was perhaps a premonition, but a bad one. Even so am glad I unknowingly honoured Prof Mbiti in the column on the day he left us," Prof Mutua told the Nation yesterday, adding the theology scholar was unquestionably the leading African religious philosopher of our time.

Prof Kibwana, who co-authored Kamba poetry with the scholar titled Ngaeka Waeka, mourned him as a friend, a mentor and a father.

Ms Ngilu said Kitui had lost a great son whose work had shaped the thinking of not only African communities but the entire world.

LEGACY

In 2003, he scrutinised the Kamba version of the Bible and compared it with the original Greek script, setting in motion events that eventually saw him translating it.

In an earlier interview with this writer in 2015, when he delivered a public lecture at South Eastern Kenya University in Kitui County, Prof Mbiti said he had noticed significant gaps between the Greek and Kamba Bible versions which prompted his corrections of the latter.

"When I compared the existing Kamba Bible version of the New Testament with the Greek text, I noted more than 1000 mistakes. This prompted me to begin the work of correcting the gaps by translating the Bible into my mother tongue," Prof Mbiti said.

Prof Mbiti explained that the mistakes arose from the fact that the existing African versions of the Bible were translated from subsequent English and other European versions.

He said the African Bibles were never translated from the Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic original versions and that the true meaning of some words was lost due to the inadequacy of African vocabulary in the subsequent interpretations.

The late Prof Mbiti explained similarly the Kamba Bible was derived from subsequent translated versions like English, German and not the original language therefore to some extent diluting the context.

Prof Mbiti told the university audience that whereas the mistakes do not necessarily change the context meaning of the Bible verses, they nevertheless differ from the original Bible script hence the need to correct them.

This latest translation has made history because it is the first Bible translation by a single African from the original Hebrew and Greek Biblical languages into an African language.

"I committed my energies, time, academic know how, skills, experiences of teaching, writing, and research, and my knowledge of Kamba language in which I've done research and written some books" he said.

PAINSTAKING WORK

To get a closer feeling and understanding of the physical and cultural contexts of the New Testament, Prof Mbiti visited many places including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Corinth and Rome.

"It was a very painstaking process. I consulted widely and got a lot of help from many Kamba speaking language experts including Prof Kibwana and his late mother Velesi Mbandi Mutuvi" he said.

The new Kamba version Bible was published by Kenya Literature Bureau and launched at Mulango Primary School, in Kitui County -where Prof Mbiti learned vernacular - by former Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga.

While teaching at Makerere, Prof Mbiti published other major works. Concepts of God in Africa (1970), New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (1971) which was a revised edition of his PhD thesis at Cambridge, Introduction to African Religion and The Prayers of African Religion both in 1975.

Prof Mbiti was ordained a priest of the Anglican Church in 1980 and became a parish minister in the reformed church of Bergdorf, Switzerland where he settled with his wife and their four children while lecturing at the University of Bern.

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